Christmas with Autism: Ho-Ho-Hold the Expectations

The Christmas holidays are a time of great excitement and anticipation. Holidays also mean changes in the schedule, visitors, crowds, line-ups, noise, and socializing. For children with ASD, the Christmas holidays can be a stressful and anxious time. Meeting family demands can be especially nerve-wracking, particularly if you want to break with time-honoured traditions that just don’t work for a child with autism. Here are a few ideas for making the holidays happy.

1)Family Expectations – Be clear with other family members what will and won’t work and make a compromise. For example, my mother wants us to spend most of the day on December 24th at her house, then go to an evening mass. To get a seat, you have to be there one hour before the mass starts. I know this will be too much for my two children on the spectrum so I’ve opted to just spend the afternoon at Grandma’s, then go home for a quiet, family dinner on our own. We’ll still see the family, just not for the same amount of time everyone else will.

2)Pick the Right Time for Activities – With everyone on Christmas break, most attractions will be busier. Call ahead and ask when the less busy times are. Matinees are better than evening shows. If eating out, get there by 5 pm or after 7 pm. A Sunday may be quieter than a Saturday; mornings are usually better at most places.

3)Maintain Routines – Try to stick with routines like bedtime, bathtime and meals. If that’s impossible, try to keep one routine in place so that the child has something he can count on being the same. Kids like predictability. If there is a change in routine, let your child know ahead of time on the schedule.

4)Food – If your child follows a special diet, let everyone know and ask them not to offer food. Well-meaning people think a child is missing out if they don’t try all the Christmas treats. Parents know the consequences of dietary changes. Having a child that is sick or won’t sleep due to what he ate is no fun.

5)Visiting – When out visiting, limit the length of the visit and make sure your child brings a few things that he finds comforting. Ask your hostess where there is a quiet space available if your child needs it.

6)Visitors – Let potential visitors know that unannounced visits are stressful. Ask that they call ahead and come at times that work for your family. Limit how long they stay ahead of time. (i.e. – We’d love to see you for an hour, but then Joey has to go for a nap or we’ll be going out.)

7)Schedule in Some Respite Time – Finding people to babysit over the holidays can be trying, but with many univeristy students home for the holidays, you may be able to enlist some help. Take in a movie, go for a walk – whatever lifts your spirits.

8)Seeing Santa – I was very inspired after reading this article about Calgary’s Southcentre Mall organizing a special morning for children with autism to see Santa. There is potential for this to be a program across Canada. It could be called Sensational Sensory Santa because they accommodations meet the sensory needs of children with autism.

9)Christmas Fun – I came across this sensory article on how to use wrapping paper with sensory diets. Go for a drive and see the Christmas lights at night. Decorate the tree over the course of a week – hang a few decorations a day so that it isn’t a huge job in one go. Buy an Advent Calendar and count down the days until Christmas. Playmobil has a great one.

10)Christmas Presents – Some children with ASD find presents overwhelming. Tearing off wrapping paper can be a challenge for those with fine motor issues. Some children might feel anxious not knowing what’s inside. For those with fine motor issues, consider putting things in gift bags with loose tissue on top. Put a picture of what’s inside the box on the outside. Not everything has to opened in one day – stretch the gift opening over the course of a week.

Remember: Forget about everyone’s holiday expectations and create your own traditions that work.

Every family has its own rhythm and pace. Do what works for your child – think about maintaining predictability through routines and familiar toys, places, and people. Merry Christmas to everyone across the globe!

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